Sometimes Rewriting Our Old Work Isn’t Worthwhile

The amount of time required to rework a piece is often too great, and it’s best to let it go.

Sometimes Rewriting Our Old Work Isn’t WorthwhileI once read the debut novel by a YA author. I was quite taken by it. I loved her humor and writing style. I wanted more, but since it was her first published novel I would need to wait.

I later learned something surprising: she had written five other novels, all unpublished. True, few novelists land a publishing deal on their first novel. Or their second or their third. I understand it typically takes four or five before they find their voice and hone their craft. I heard of another author who wrote nine novels before he sold one.

Since I don’t write novels (yet), I wondered why authors give up on their initial attempts. Just fix the flaws in their back material, and it’s good to go. However, this may be naive thinking.

I recently pulled out a short story I wrote several decades ago. It is the oldest one that I still have. I read it. The premise was good. I grabbed readers with the opening, surprised them at the end, and had an interesting arc in the between part. All it needed was a simple edit to incorporate what I now know.

It wasn’t that simple.

First, I had written it in third-person omniscient. This was fine in 1977 but not acceptable for today’s market. Publishing’s gatekeepers now deem head hopping verboten. I picked a point-of-view (POV) character, the mom, which required I rewrite all the scenes that included the dad’s, daughter’s, and boyfriend’s thoughts; this accounted for most of the story. Plus it took too many false starts to home in on the right POV character. Third-person omniscient writing is no longer acceptable. Click To Tweet

Next, my narrator’s voice was a juvenile’s, which makes sense because I was a teenager when I wrote it. I needed to update that as well. Last was the pleasant reality that I’m a much better writer now and had scores of novice errors to fix.

After several rewrites and the investment of too much time, my once unacceptable short story was now acceptable: good but not great. An editor told me as much in his rejection email when I submitted it for publication.

I suspect I spent four times the work trying to fix this old short story as I would have spent writing and polishing a new one. I should have thrown it away and focused on new material.

Now I understand why some first novels aren’t worth the effort to fix.

What is your experience trying to breathe new life in to old work? Do you have a first novel that isn’t worth fixing?

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

6 thoughts on “Sometimes Rewriting Our Old Work Isn’t Worthwhile”

  1. interesting post. I have one I’ve been trying to make work for a while. I put it aside, then pick it up again. I haven’t been able to let it go completely . . . Still can’t decide whether I’m wasting my time or whether it is worth the effort.

  2. I think keeping those old stories is a wonderful window into our own younger selves. I have one I wrote in 5th grade. I wouldn’t toss that for the world, nor would I rework it. I have a notebook full of poetry from high school and college. I do wonder about the one I am writing now, have been writing. I have lost track of how many years. It’s a beautiful true story about fleshed out long dead family members and real locations. If I can only print ten copies for my family, I will be happy. I enjoy reading it and cry at the right scenes, still. Beyond that, I’d love the world to read our true life historical story.

      1. When we listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s old songs, i am amazed at their wisdom at such an early age. Granted, they are very famous! But I found bits of wisdom in my old stuff, and even read one at our poetry group. It did not meet with rejection, thankfully. Yes, I might be embarrassed if my daughter read them. But she was a teenager once… 😉

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